If you ask most sports enthusiasts who their favourite sports writers are they will very often mention people who are of pensionable age, or at least well into life's back nine. Ian Wooldridge, Ken Jones, Hugh McIlvanney, Brian Glanville and John Woodcock spring to mind, and I hope The Independent's chief sports writer, James Lawton, though well shy of his bus pass, won't mind being added to the list.
As their fans recognise, these men have the great fortune to be blessed not only with considerable writing skills, but also with birthdays in the first half of the 20th Century. The rest of us can polish our writing skills until they gleam, but we can never shift our birthdays back.
On the golf course of mortality I'm probably past the turn myself, but I'm still not quite old enough. Hard as I might try, I will never know what it was like to watch, in the flesh, Edrich and Compton trying to deal with Lindwall and Miller. Or Sonny Liston failing to deal with Cassius Clay. In writing about sport now, it is frequently helpful to offer a comparison with sport then, yet 1970, when I was nine, is about as far back as I can reach.
To make up for this deficiency, I try to read as much as I can about the great sportsmen and women I missed, most recently Joe Louis and Jesse Owens, in Donald McRae's superb book, In Black and White.
But reading can get you into trouble, as I found out recently when, in a column elsewhere in these pages, I wrote about the great Hungarian footballing side of the 1950s. I had read somewhere that in the 1954 World Cup final, Hungary were "unjustly" beaten by West Germany. So that is what I wrote, and how the flak flew.
A reader, Mark Stickings, quickly got on my case. "I must take issue with your throwaway comment that the Hungarians were beaten unjustly by West Germany in the 1954 World Cup final," he wrote. "Unjustly means there was something unfair about it, like a biased ref. The fact is that Hungary didn't play that well on the day. There were elements of bad luck - they hit bar and post, had the ball cleared off the line and it was pouring with rain - but Germany man-marked Nándor Hidegkuti when he dropped back and had many attacks themselves."
That's me told, I thought. But it wasn't, quite. Another letter arrived, this time from a German reader living in London, Dr Florian Ruths, whose words I paraphrase here slightly. He too took issue with the word "unjustly". But for entirely different reasons.
"Ouch," he wrote. "Where does this come from? One minute, grandiose fantasies about England's rugby invincibility, the next minute a grudging, small-hearted comment about another nation's sporting heritage. A phrase in an English paper describing German success would not be complete without some such comment. When Germany win, it's either bad refereeing, deflections, bad defending, bribing, bullying, cheating or a bloody easy group of losers playing against them."
Dr Ruths went on to suggest that West Germany's footballers lost the 1966 World Cup "unjustly", after a goal was awarded against them in extra-time even though "the world could see" that the ball had not crossed the line. He added that Bayern Munich lost the 1999 European Cup final "unjustly", having dominated Manchester United throughout.
I was beginning to get the point, but he rather mercilessly continued to drive it home.
"Following England's win in the rugby union World Cup final," he wrote, "all the fans were so wonderfully peaceful. Four Australian supporters were applauded out of my local pub because England had won at last. Your kind of justice had been done. But when "injustice" last happened, at Wembley in 1996, a Russian was stabbed because he was mistaken for a German, and dozens of people were hurled out of their Volkswagens. I even witnessed a German family with two 10-year-old kids having to leave a social club very quickly before their drunk colleagues took revenge for a 'Vinerian' injustice."
Dr Ruths concluded: "I am personally saddened by simplistic stereotypes and by your contribution to intellectual jingoism. Even people who rarely read your articles absorb their spirit. And I am even more saddened at a time when the characteristics of English and German teams seem to be converging. Does not the England rugby team essentially follow the classic German football blueprint of being boringly systematic but powerfully getting the job done?"
I felt properly humbled by Dr Ruths's words and tried to explain in reply that I had not been intentionally slighting Germany by writing of Hungary's "unjust" defeat. I also resolved never again to reproduce blithely something I had read elsewhere, not without knowing the full facts, and never again to pretend to have a sporting memory longer than it is.
And in the meantime, I thought, you've got to say this about the Germans. They're ruthlessly efficient letter writers.Reuse content